John Dunn Recalls When He Took Down With Dread Disease

by  Dee Woods



The Dreaded Yellow Fever

From the Diary of Capt. Ned Mercer, Pilot, on Mustang Island, at Aransas Pass:


. . . So ends the month of July 1867.  P.S. – The month of July has been an extraordinary warm one.  The yellow fever has visited Corpus Christi and killed some of its oldest citizens.


Sept. 9, 1873 . . . Frank Stephenson arrived from Corpus Christi.  He brings news of a strict quarantine and that yellow fever is in Galveston.  No more vessels allowed to go to Corpus Christi.  Frank is appointed quarantine officer at Shell Bank to stop every and all vessels from going to Corpus Christi.


Aug. 7, 1878.  Day begins.  Wind S.  The dance kept up till 12 last night then the guests departed, but the quarantine officer stopped them.  Going to put them in 11 days quarantine.  Leonard and family back to the ranch.


George Roberts and the Lamar squad got scared and turned back.  hell to pay and no pitch hot.  So ends the day.  Wind S.E.


Quarantined After the Ball

Next day:  Ned and George Roberts took a turn to see what our crazy quarantine doctor means.  Sort of straightened things up.  Got all of the squads off to their respective homes.


. . . The captain’s log does not go into details about “how things were straightened up.”  However, it does record that not many attended the dance because of the quarantine.


South Texans were in mortal fear if yellow fever at this time, having been visited by the “black vomit” in 1854 and 1867.  Hundreds of citizens died, victims of the dread disease.


So great was the scourge, the living could not care for the dead.  Three of four would be buried in the same grave.  Fences were torn down to build coffins.  Lumber on the ground to build Corpus Christi’s first Presbyterian Church was used for coffins.


Dead Men Tell No Tales

In San Antonio, when the foundation for the new port office building was dug five years ago, 15 or 20 skeletons were unearthed.  There was much surmise as to who these persons were. 


Suggestions were offered that the bones were of persons interred in a burial plot of the Alamo when it was used as a mission, or that the skeletons were those of Mexican soldiers who stormed the  Alamo.


A young-looking old lady of San Antonio says she remembers her parents telling of yellow fever victims whose bodies were thrown in a ditch and that she remembers playing in that big ditch when a small child.  That ditch was where the San Antonio post office is today.


Capt. Anderson in Quarantine

The captain’s diary says the Steamer Aransas was put in quarantine by the doctor August 2 in 1878 and that next day she hired lighters and began to unload cargo to Corpus Christi.


On one of these barges carrying the freight was Capt. Andrew Anderson, then one of the crew.  Quarantine officer was the late Dr. Burke.


Unlike the guests returning home from the ball, the crew did not talk the officer out of quarantine and the two lighters remained anchored side by side near St. Joseph’s Island.  The Steamer Aransas left for ports not under quarantine.


“Afraid to and Scared Not to”

Captain Anderson says for a time the men in quarantine were very gay.  Each lighter had its own musicians and they would vie with each other to see who could furnish the best program.


Dr. Burke left the crews alone, told them to hoist a flag if any one of them became ill.  a man named Henry Rodgers came down with chills and fever.  The crew were afraid to put up the flag and scared not to.  However, the doctor pronounced the sickness only malaria.


After 21 days, the doctor fumigated the hold of each lighter and the vessels were allowed to spend the rest of quarantine time at Shell Bank.


Met by Shotgun Mob

When the lighters got back to Corpus Christi with their freight they were met out in the bay by several skiffs holding a mob of men with shotguns who were not going to allow them to disembark.


After dark the crew slipped away from the lighters in small boats and were in Corpus Christi two hours drinking “milkshakes” before the shotgun mob discovered they were no longer on the vessels.


In 1867 there were about 1,000 inhabitants in the city and about 300 died of yellow fever.


Dr. Merriman, father of Eli Merriman who lives at the Nueces Hotel, was a doctor in the city at that time.  His treatment was to fill a wash tub with ashes and hot water and to make the patient plunge his feet and legs into it.  Then, he was swathed in blankets and made “to sweat the fever out of his system.”


Accident Saved Life

John Dunn of Dunn’s Museum who had the fever in ‘67, says, “If a person didn’t sweat the first eight hours he died.  I got well of the fever.  Cured myself.  But it was an accident.


“When I felt myself coming down with the disease,” says Dunn, “I threw myself down between the two cousins I was nursing and threw my arms across them to keep the cover on them.  I nearly burned up with the fever.  My breath burned my face.  I went crazy.  I crawled across the room, struck my head on a table hard enough to make it bleed.  That let the hot blood out.  It saved my life.”


It is said a number of persons fled down to laguna Madre to the settlements at Penescal and to Curry’s.  The dread yellow fever never reached there.



Source: Corpus Christi Caller, July 7, 1939

Transcription by: Rosa G. Gonzales